By Robbie Ward
STARKVILLE, Mississippi (Reuters) - The last three inmates still in prison who had been pardoned by former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour were released on Saturday, two days after the state's highest court cleared the way for their freedom.
The release of the prisoners could be the final chapter in a controversial saga that began in January when Barbour issued more than 200 pardons as he left office, the most in modern Mississippi history.
The pardons prompted an outcry from victims of those released and the families of victims. Many in Mississippi were perplexed why a law-and-order conservative Republican granted them.
Barbour said he showed mercy out of a spirit of forgiveness and to give the inmates a second chance.
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood challenged 10 of the pardons before the state Supreme Court, which ruled on Thursday that Barbour had the constitutional authority to grant them.
"This is the end of pardon-gate," said Matthew Steffey, a constitutional law professor at Mississippi College School of Law. "The court made clear there was no clear jurisdiction to challenge a ... valid pardon."
Hood, the only Democrat to hold statewide office, said he would work with local law enforcement authorities and victims' rights advocates to amend the state constitution so that future governors abide by technical requirements in making pardons.
Proposals in the Mississippi Legislature to limit the governor's pardon authority have not advanced.
"Based on recidivism rates, some of them (pardoned) will go back and commit crimes," Hood said. "We just hope no one gets hurt."
One inmate pardoned by Barbour, a South African citizen, went from one prison to another this week. Azikiwe "Azi" Kambule left prison in Mississippi on Friday and was detained in Louisiana on an immigration charge and may be deported to his home country.
It is not clear when Kambule will be deported. He was convicted more than 15 years ago of carjacking and being an accessory to murder in the death of a Jackson, Mississippi, social worker.
Rob McDuff, who represented Kambule when he pleaded guilty to the crimes, said his youth at the time and the lengthy 35-year prison sentence were factors in Barbour granting the South African full clemency.
"He was a 17-year-old kid in a new country who was pressured by an older person into going along while that person carjacked and killed a woman," McDuff said. "Azi was somebody who got caught up in something that went much further than anybody ever intended."
(Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Cooney)